Quilts & waggas: The Running Stitch Collection
A highlight in the collection
of the National Wool Museum
by Jo Foley
Collection Manager National Wool Museum, Geelong, Victoria.
View of The Running Stitch Collection on
display at the National Wool Museum
Building the Collection
The Running Stitch Collection at the National Wool Museum,
Geelong is able to trace the history of the domestic quilt tradition
in Australia from the early 1900's to the present day. The items
in the collection were compiled during the 1980's by four textile
artists from Melbourne, calling themselves "The Running Stitch
Group". The founding members were Barbara Macey, Lois Densham,
Jan Ross-Manley and Susan Denton, with Deborah Brearley joining
in 1995. They all shared a collective passion for their medium
and for our Australian quilt heritage.
The group formed in 1983 with two objectives. Firstly, to find
avenues to express their feeling about the importance of textiles
to a wider audience, beyond the limitations of formalised gallery
situations. Secondly, to obtain greater control over the exhibition
of their work. Exhibiting as a group rather than as individuals,
given the large scale and time consuming nature of their work,
meant that they could exhibit more often.
The items in the collection were initially obtained from a range
of sources by the Running Stitch group members over an eighteen-month
period. This preceded an exhibition in 1985, "Wool Quilts:
Old and New" at 'Wool House", the offices of the Australian
Wool Corporation in Melbourne. The exhibition included contemporary
quilts made by members of the group, traditional American wool
quilts and a number of old Australian quilts and "waggas".
Detail. Heavyweight 'travelling rug' made
from a green crushed velvet coat.
The response to this exhibition was very encouraging as people
began to realise the attraction and value of our domestic textile
heritage. Prompted by the display, some visitors left stories
about their own textile pieces. Some decided to give the group
examples of the quilts and "waggas" used in their own
However, not everyone wanted to identify who had made them or
where they were from. Sometimes recalling leaner times can be
a sensitive issue. It is for this reason that some items in the
collection will always remain "unknown". It is left
to us to imagine their makers and the times in which they were
The interest in the collection built momentum and culminated in
a touring show of the same name, which was curated by the Ararat
Art Gallery. The exhibition went to many of Victoria's regional
museums and galleries during 1986 and 1987 and several quilts
were given to the group when they were on display in "The
Great Exhibition of Victoria" at the Museum of Victoria.
In 1989, the group members decided to give their collection to
The National Wool Museum. They have become valued items in the
Museum's collection, contributing to the Museum's ability to tell
stories about wool through a demonstration of methods where wool
has been used in unique domestic applications.
Making our textile heritage
The social tradition of quilt making arrived in Australia
with the first Europeans. However, Aboriginal people as the original
inhabitants of this country, resorted to forms of 'quilt making':
keeping warm using animal skins as cloaks or mantles. This simple
need to keep warm has fuelled centuries of creative endeavour
mostly carried out by women. The presence of these quilts in our
collective historical landscape is compelling: we are enriched
by their colours, designs and ability to reach many people in
a strangely intimate way.
Hand sewn patchwork quilt in a pattern
of squares as diamonds.
Where buildings create a tangible reminder of our urban history,
quilts are one of the few remaining legacies left of unseen, domestic
'women's work'. Popular trends in handcrafts, changing like fashion,
have meant our quilt heritage reads like a photo album: reflecting
the life and times of the makers. Different styles in quilt making
have evolved in Australia, built on styles from Britain, Europe
and North America. The Running Stitch collection is not inclusive
of them all, but it is still able to demonstrate the effect they
have had on our utilitarian quilt traditions.
Some basic patchwork quilting styles, using grid or block patterns
such as 'log cabin', 'central medallion' and 'hexagon' have been
adopted in Australian quilts since the late nineteenth century.
The fluidity and all-over randomness of 'crazy patchwork' became
very popular from that time up until the 1930's. Decorative quilts
using these styles indicate the manner in which some women of
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spent their time, given
limited opportunity for work outside the home.
Conversely, broader life opportunities for modern women have
meant they have become 'time poor': juggling conflicting demands
to earn an income, raise a family, run a household or pursue an
education. Time for handcrafts has been significantly reduced
or adopted as a means to an end with little embellishment. The
plain patchwork used in domestic waggas suggests that time for
sewing had become a necessary part of surviving in times when
people were both resource and time poor.
So what is a "wagga"?
The resourcefulness of Australians bred on a diet of harsh uncertainty
from drought, fire, flood and war has nurtured a folk heritage
of 'making something out of nothing'. Regardless of economic circumstance,
everyone recycled, practicing thrift during times of deprivation.
In the early twentieth century this was caused by economic depression
and world wars and in this environment, the humble utilitarian
quilts called "waggas" were born.
Wagga, made from 2 standard size jute wheat
The origin of the word "wagga" may always remain a
mystery but it is thought to be derived from the finely woven
"Wagga Lily Flour" sacks made by the Murrumbidgee Flour
Milling Co-operative in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. However,
they were made and known of right across Australia and were given
different names such as a 'bluey', 'bush rug', 'wogger', 'Sydney
blanket' or a 'Murrumbidgee rug'.
They all seem to share the same construction methods and were
made mostly by men living 'on the road' and working in itinerant
occupations on the land such as shearing, droving and fencing.
Waggas were made of materials commonly found in a shed such as
jute wheat bags and wool packs, opened out and stitched together
along the seams with twine.
During the 1930's, the domestic burden carried by women was huge.
Family survival often depended on women's initiative and skills
to clothe and feed the family, furnish the home and literally
'make the bedding'. Women made domestic waggas for use in the
home, which could be as simple as wheat or chaff bags stitched
together and enclosed within a cotton cover made of simple patchwork.
Otherwise, pieces of old clothing or bedding were laid flat and
roughly stitched together, sometimes making quite a heavy quilt.
Often these waggas or quilts were made with some thought for an
aesthetic design, however humble the intent or plain the material.
The art in 'making do'
Recycling is not just a modern day activity based on saving the
environment. Last century, thrift was a national activity, necessary
in times of financial hardship where the availability of ready-made
goods to furnish the home and clothe the family was not as easy
as it is today. The global marketplace has provided us with many
choices to meet our material needs in a manner we almost take
for granted. With more disposable income, we are so used to buying
things cheaply and throwing out what is no longer useful. Not
so long ago, these things were saved in the 'scraps box' and turned
into other useful things when the need arose.
Patchwork quilt made from pieces of wool
suitings, clothing offcuts and blankets.
Choices still existed even with limited resources and people
took care with their home made quilts to create something that
was attractive. Even the simple patchwork quilts, made from suiting
sample books obtained from tailors and travelling salesmen, show
careful placement of colours to make a balanced design. These
quilts and those made from a myriad of other recycled fabrics
such as old bedspreads, curtains, clothing and blankets have become
more than just a simple bed covering. Their colours, allusions
to light, space and movement transcends their everyday function
and conveys messages about our collective social history, how
time was spent and family relationships.
It is interesting to see how the designs found in these utilitarian
quilts of the Depression years can be compared with forms of abstractionism,
which developed in modern art in the latter part of the twentieth
century. These designs grew unselfconsciously from pragmatic origins
and in isolation to modern art using a 'restricted palette' of
recycled materials. Abstract pseudo-landscapes appear from the
colours of the suiting samples: the pale blues of a broad, hot
sky, the deep blues of the sea, the greys of a foggy morning.
The Running Stitch Collection grew to encompass a broad interpretation
of bed coverings. It was then appropriate to include a selection
of temporary bed coverings, which were not made at home out of
scraps but were factory produced and used in situations 'on the
Included for this purpose is one example of a commercially made
quilt, with its smart machine stitching and straight edges, which
were in stark contrast to the informality of the domestic waggas.
Just like the wheat bag waggas, blankets can become ready-made
beds and can serve as impromptu pieces of furniture when seating
is unavailable. The travel rug has become an essential part of
Australian outdoor life for activities such as picnics, camping
and days at the beach.
In times of war the standard issue army blanket served many purposes
including warmth, protection and comfort. However, whilst being
mass-produced for the war effort, the ubiquitous army blanket
has remained in many families as the indispensable 'spare' during
The Running Stitch Group learned about an innovative approach
to temporary shelter for homeless persons and acquired a 'recycled
paper sleeping bag' for the collection. This item still fitted
in to the collection's ethos of 'making do'. This is fortunate,
as the Museum now has one of the few (and possibly the last) remaining
examples of this product which was an attempt to provide symptomatic
relief to life on the streets.
Contemporary art quilts - what is an 'art quilt'?
To determine what defines an 'art' quilt can be an entirely
subjective judgement. With art quilts, the spirit of traditional
quilt making is still maintained but developed with a conscious
acknowledgment of other factors such as design, colour and the
influence of art forms, all within the context of contemporary
When the Running Stitch Collection was given to the National
Wool Museum, several members of the Running Stitch Group included
examples of their quilts with the donation. Since that time and
in the spirit of story telling through quilt making, opportunities
have arisen for the Museum to supplement the collection with further
examples of contemporary art quilts.
Collecting and exhibiting contemporary art quilts
In 1995, the Running Stitch members proposed to the Museum the
idea for a competition and exhibition of contemporary wool quilts.
Loosely defining the word 'quilt' so that entrants were not bound
by the usual conventions, the concept was very successful. Many
high quality entries were received with personal definitions of
a quilt that were broadly and imaginatively explored.
Building on this success, the Museum began a commitment to a
biennial and acquisitive exhibition called "Expressions:
The Wool Quilt Prize". The exhibitions in 2000 and 2002 highlighted
the unique qualities and versatility of wool as a medium and encouraged
quilt makers to strive for excellence in contemporary wool quilt
design. It is currently the only contemporary wool quilt prize
of its type in the world and will be hosted again by the National
Wool Museum from September 2004.
Collection Manager National Wool Museum, Geelong, Victoria.